Constitution for First Nation includes Kaska language

SAVING THE LANGUAGE... Ross River residents George Smith and Elder Charlie Dick at YNLC. They are working on a native language version of the Kaska constitution.

Four years ago the people of Ross River broke new ground by deciding to use the Kaska language in the new constitution they were developing. They wanted the document to provide a basis for future generations to live in harmony by applying Kaska traditional values to new and changing circumstances.

And they decided to put those beliefs into practice by including a preamble that focused on their traditional beliefs and teachings, written entirely in the Kaska language.

A group that among other speakers included elder Charlie Dick, elder Grady Sterriah and the then chief Norman Sterriah drafted the preamble with the assistance of the Yukon Native Language Centre. The constitution was later presented to the Ross River general assembly.

The result was so impressive that the same approach has now been adopted by the Kaska First Nation as a whole, composed of six communities in the Yukon and B.C.

“We've had a lot of discussion about the need to develop a national Kaska constitution,” says George Smith, advisor for land selection for the Ross River Dene Council and one of the original members of the group that developed the Ross River preamble.

“Two or three years ago the Annual Assembly had a look at what Ross River was doing and they thought that approach could be adopted for the whole First Nation.

“So they asked us to develop a national concept, working with all the Kaska First Nation communities and the Yukon Native Language Centre.”

Smith explains that many supportive statements and comments were made at the Annual Assembly about the way in which Ross River was developing its constitution.

“People said it showed respect to our elders and our environment and our trees and animals, and that's who we are, that's how we look at the world.

“A lot of people were saying that it was very good to have that reflected somewhere.”

As Smith sees it, there are two reasons for including a preamble written in the Kaska language.

“It will form the basis of our national constitution. It tells us who we are, where we're from, and how we are to live in relation to the land and people.”

But it also has an important role to play in preserving the Kaska language, he says.

“If we want our language to survive, then if our kids see it in the constitution they will keep it going. They will see we have a language, and that we want to promote it.”

He explains that the preamble for the national Kaska constitution will be similar to the Ross River one in its focus on traditional beliefs and teachings.

“Our beliefs, our elders' role, the stories and legends that were mentioned in the Ross River document are similar in all the Kaska communities,” Smith says.

The national constitution, however, will be expanded to refer to the other geographical areas in Kaska territory.

Such changes are significant because of the importance of place names, which form a record of Kaska people's ties to specific areas and may relate to events which happened long ago, such as floods.

The process of rendering spoken place names in written form is a slow and painstaking one, according to elder Grady Sterriah of Ross River.

“If you don't do it right, it doesn't feel right,” she explains.

Sterriah is a retired native language instructor who taught Kaska for 10 years in Ross River and received both her certificate and diploma in teaching native languages from the Yukon Native Language Centre.

As part of her training she learned how to write in Kaska—a knowledge that is very useful as she works with the others in drafting the Kaska text.

“It makes you feel better because your language is written,” she says.

The new national constitution includes a statement about who the Kaska people are and where they live, recognizing that people have been living in the area for as long as anyone can remember.

It also recognizes the close relationships among the communities that form the Kaska First Nation, as well as among the Kaska dialects.

A particularly important and detailed section deals with the traditional values and practices of the Kaska people.

These values and practices include respect towards others, spiritual beliefs, traditional customs such as the clan system, and teaching practices, especially the use of stories by the elders.

Why is it important to mention stories?

“Stories help us to understand how we came to be here, and the elders' teaching was based on that,” replies Smith.

The working group met recently at the Yukon Native Language Centre to review the progress of the work. With Centre Director John Ritter they checked each section of the document for accuracy of transcription and translation in English and Kaska.

They also reviewed the electronic sound files of every sentence in the draft. These files will enable the creation of a CD with the English and Kaska texts of the preamble matched with a spoken Kaska version by Grady Sterriah and Charlie Dick.

“We wanted to try and complete this at the same time as we were doing our land claim negotiations,” says Smith.

“It was something that was important for our people.”

The draft will now go to the Kaska nation leadership for review, and if adopted will be presented to the Annual Assembly for ratification this summer.

Smith himself grew up speaking Kaska, and although he lost his fluency during mission school, he regained it once he returned home.

“My grandparents and parents only spoke Kaska and very little English, so my brothers and sister and I had to speak Kaska to communicate.”

The language is now being passed on to the next generation, with Smith's youngest son learning Kaska in school.

“People feel more comfortable speaking our language, because they speak with more emotion, they can describe what they're talking about more,” he says.

“And there's a need for people to use it now, as our elders keep advising us. If we lose our language then part of our culture will disappear.”

Smith credits his parents, Tom and Tillie Smith, with providing encouragement and support for his efforts and that of others in developing the constitution.

“They provide a lot of support and play a big role in my life here,” he says.

“They advise us to protect our language and our land and our ways. They don't want us to lose what we have.”

That's why a written document reflecting those values and putting them into practice is so important, he notes.

“It's very important for people have our language known and to have our teachings and the ways of our elders incorporated somehow, and it'll be there for future generations.”

Smith says that he tells his own children that “they have to know who they are, and how we look after ourselves and our environment, and this constitution will help to do that. It's important for them to learn that and be part of it.”